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Notes from the underground: The secret life of mushrooms


Finding the first mushroom of the season is one of those "Eureka!" moments, so when I went out a few weeks ago for an initial survey of the national forest nearest me, I got pretty excited when I saw a crinkled white blob sitting on a nest of moss.

"Wow, a new species on the first day," I thought to myself, bending over to take a closer look. I'd found an unusual specimen here a few years earlier, so I was ready for anything. But delight soon turned to disappointment: What I picked up was a piece of styrofoam, far from the nearest road or campground.

A few days later, I went back in my favorite hunting grounds, where I sometimes find golden chanterelles. It's a turnout along the road where the highway department pushes winter snows over the embankment. As the plows do their work, they also scrape off the yellow paint. The chips that wash down into the pine duff are almost the same color as the cherished fungi, and more than once -- my heart beating a little faster -- I've bent down, only to end up with a fragment of colored pavement.

But this year has been wet, wet, wet, and I was rewarded. Several days of wandering in the forest yielded bags full of chanterelles, hawk's wings, porcini, slippery jacks, boletes and more. Always, I'm careful to cut the stems and leave the base of the mushroom undisturbed so that new growth can sprout up from the mycelium, those buried strands that comprise most of the fungi's living mass.

Now the kitchen counter is covered with wire racks full of drying mushroom slices and the coffee table is set up as an impromptu identification station, with dog-eared books and sheets of white paper covered with spore prints. Luckily my girlfriend loves fungi as much as I do; otherwise the mess might drive her crazy.

Mushroom hunting feels more like art than work. Usually, it involves letting the mushrooms find me. If I march through the forest, intent on filling a bag, I rarely find much. What seems to work best is to find some likely habitat, wander around aimlessly for a while and then sit on a stump. I sniff the air and let my gaze dissolve into soft-focus until the lumpy fungi seem to magically appear.

It's also a good way to get lost. More than once, I've followed a glimpse of wild fungi, marveling that I've ended up in a spot with 15 species in sight before I realize I have no clue where I am, how I got there or how to get back to a trail.

Mushroom hunters, it turns out, can be just as obsessive as deer or elk hunters; whatever it takes, they'll do it to bag their prey. At a mycology teaching session last winter, a new mushroom-hunting friend told how he walked into a huge patch of morels last spring while exploring a recently burned area. But he had a problem: He'd brought only one small basket to carry out the bounty.

"No problem," he told me. "I just took off my jeans. I tied the legs shut, stuffed them full of morels and hiked back to the car in my underwear." I was skeptical until he pulled out his Blackberry and showed me the pictures to prove it.

I'm sure the instinct to gather these deliciously spongy fruiting bodies goes way back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who must have played an interesting game of Russian roulette, trying to figure out which mushrooms tasted great and were safe to eat, and which ones tasted great but just might kill them.

Nowadays, we'll survive the winter even if there's no plentiful fungus harvest, so we have time to care about mushrooms for other reasons than culinary. Here in our Western forests, I've learned that many tree species have developed a symbiotic relationship with fungi underground. Whitebark pines, for example, need certain types of Suillus fungi to help them absorb nitrogen and phosphorus. In return, the tree roots give back some excess carbohydrates -- fuel for the fungi. In the Southwest, the mycelium of underground truffles plays a similar role in the ecology of ponderosa pine forests.

The mutually beneficial relationship between mushrooms and trees has a message for us. Put simply, it's this: Never take more than you need, and always be sure to give something back.

Bob Berwyn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and photographer in Frisco, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].